Collaboration: The Lost Skill?

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First I’d like to say thanks to Scott McLeod for the opportunity to write a post for Dangerously Irrelevant. The topic of student collaboration is one that has been bouncing around in my head for quite some time. I want to disclaim at the forefront that I want this to be a conversation. I want to learn from you. I want you to make me think. This is not the end-all be-all about collaboration. I want to talk about the necessity of this 21st century skill and how I think it dwindles as a necessary skill as students move away from elementary school.

My daughter is almost 6 years old. She just started Kindergarten. Recently she was at a playground with her brother and numerous other kids. As I watched her play, I noticed how comfortable she was going up to kids she’d never met, introducing herself, and engaging these kids in conversation which led to a new playtime opportunity. She was probably doing whatever she could to not have to play with her younger brother for a while. 🙂

If you have young children it’s really an amazing thing to watch. She just went right up to these other kids, and started in like she had known them already. Right away I thought about collaboration. Even if it’s in the most simplest form, she is collaborating. It doesn’t matter if it’s in her kindergarten classroom or on the playground. She wants to have a productive play/learning time. That is her goal. It would seem, that she is eager to collaborate for this to happen. I feel like I’ve been a positive guide for her to be this way; but it wasn’t decreed like, “You shall speak to all of your peers and engage them!” I am blown away by her comfort level. Even when I’m in a classroom of younger students (I’m thinking Kindergarten through 2nd grade), I am always intrigued at their collaboration skills (as basic as they may be) to achieve a common goal.

All of this thinking on collaboration and 21st century skills led me to ask this via Twitter, “What field of expertise DOESN’T require some form of collaboration to succeed?” I didn’t get one serious response. My friend Andy Marcinek, however, gets the award for funniest response. “A mime.” Seriously though, how can we say that students don’t need the skill of effective collaboration? I want to hear your thoughts on this.

I have seen tweets and blog posts recently about frustration that teachers are having getting their students to collaborate. These were mainly secondary teachers and library media specialists. It was even an #EdChat topic a few weeks ago: “How do we engage students who find participatory learning uncomfortable?” What do you find most difficult when getting students to collaborate? Criticism from their peers? A bad experience with a previous teacher? It seems like there’s so many factors that can come into play.

How are we fostering this skill beyond kindergarten? What have you found that really is motivating for students to collaborate? What gives them true ownership of their learning? There’s awesome digital tools that aid in collaboration, but those tools don’t MAKE the collaboration. It’s a skill that still has to be fine tuned. It’s a skill we should all be modeling effectively if we want our students to do it effectively. If you’re looking for some great suggestions on how to foster collaboration in your classroom, I would suggest reading Michelle Bourgeois’ post titled:  The Collaborative Classroom: It’s a Juggling Act. In this post Michelle tells a story of teaching students how to juggle and says. “Just like the art of juggling, there are several skills that need to be balanced and constantly monitored in a collaborative classroom to make it all come together.” Please be sure to check out Michelle’s post on how to monitor and keep balance of some essentials in classroom collaboration.

This leads to my questions, “Where does this skill go?” Am I the only one that thinks younger students are better at collaboration than older students? Shouldn’t this be the opposite? This is something we want our students to be better at right? We should be fostering this skill in our classrooms, not hindering it. How often are you allowing students to collaborate? Not to say that awesome things can’t come out of individual thinking, but as I always like to say, “We’re better together.” Sure, one mind can do awesome things, but a collective could really rock someone’s world.

Thanks for reading.

Kyle Pace is a K-12 instructional technology specialist from Kansas City, Missouri. He works with teachers in his district to provide professional development, resources, and strategies to implement instructional technology to impact student learning. You can follow Kyle on Twitter by visiting and you can find his web site at

28 Responses to “Collaboration: The Lost Skill?”

  1. Maybe we put teachers in situations where they don’t practice collaboration and have a heard time modeling it in the classroom? In buildings you have all staff meetings that are usually the sage on the stage type production. Then the next week they go to department meetings where people complain about common issues that they deal with the discipline/grade level they all share. Misery loves company. Maybe we need let teachers work together with different staff members to tackle building goals and district initiatives?

  2. I teach game design and I see exceptional collaboration abilities in all my students. (that is about the only common thread in the usual odd mix of my student population) I would argue that these students are used to having a positive experience with collaboration. Other students, in more traditional circles have probably had less than desirable outcomes when working with others. This is just Positive / Negative reinforcement at the basic level. Children haven’t had any negative experiences in social collaboration. As the negative experiences outweigh the positive an introverted persona is rewarded.

    • Andrew,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, in your subject area I can see collaboration being easier thus creating a positive experience. Students are working together to acheieve a common goal, and this sounds like something they are all passionate about. I wonder how their passion for game design was fostered?

      When you say, “Children haven’t had any negative experiences in social collaboration”, are you referring to social networking such as Facebook or in a specfic education setting? I’m not sure what you mean by that. If I think back do social collaboration when I was younger, I can think of lots of negative experiences that might have me question my ability as an effective collaborator.

  3. I wonder if this is a lost skill because throughout their schooling we un-teach it? We make them sit separately, give them separate assignments, separate grades, and then we tell them that they have to work independently. I can’t tell you how many teachers I have heard say the words “I don’t want to know what johnny knows, I want to know what you know.” We make them sit silently except for the few free minutes on the playground or at lunch. It is no wonder younger students are better at this, they haven’t un-learned it yet.

    • Kelly,
      Thank you for your comment. This makes me think back to those old time school photos that are used in presentations about 21st century skills. It always sparks discussion on what type of future are we preparing students for. I think we should be teaching students skills that help them to “know what Johnny knows” when they don’t know. Of course we don’t want our students just copying and pasting from another classmate, but we need to be modeling and teaching collaborative skills students need to reach out to each other for support.

    • Exactly. Teachers who set that sort of tone (desks face the front, everyone listen to the teacher, no talking) shouldn’t be surprised when collaboration is a problem in their rooms. If you want kids to collaborate, you need to create a conducive environment for that kind of learning and make it part of classroom culture. It’s not something you can do on Mondays in period 6!!

      • Thank you for your comment. You’re exactly right. Just like with technology, we can’t say, “Ok, Tuesdays are going to be the day that I let students collaborate.” It just can’t/won’t work that way.

  4. I do think in some contexts in school we do un-teach collaboration. I know systemically we set kids up to compete against each other for so much from a place on the team to a part in the play to this or that scholarship, to who gets the best internship, etc. However, I don’t know that collaboration is something that comes as naturally to all children as Kyle describes. I am thinking that whether you are an introvert or an extrovert might factor in greatly as to whether or not collaboration is natural for you. But then, what causes a personality to be introverted or extroverted? I don’t know.

    • Carl,
      Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate hearing your viewpoint. You’re right, it’s not easy or natural for everyone. I know it wasn’t for me. I don’t think my collaboration skills truly got up to speed until I had been in the classroom for a few years.

  5. I think ktenkely has a good point. But I also think that tv, computers, video games, texting, social media, etc… contribute to this lack of collaboration. Most of these activities are done individually (sometimes with 1 or 2 other people). Social media allows people to interact but it doesn’t encourage face-to-face collaboration.

  6. Like others have mentioned, I think some of secondary students’ reluctance to collaborate in class may be due to personality traits (e.g., shyness or introversion). But I also think we ‘school’ it out of them by emphasizing individual grades over collective success. The fastest way to kill a collaborative spirit is to attach an individual external reward to it, no?

    (Students: “Do I have to work in this group? Kyle’s not going to do his part and/or he’s going to bring down our collective grade because he’s not as smart as us. How are you separating my grade from his?”)

    We see secondary students collaborating successfully in other environments (e.g., youth groups, video gaming, teaching each other tech). What are the characteristics of those environments compared to what we do in our classes?

    • Scott,
      Thanks for commenting! I agree with you, and that is a whole other arena of collaboration that’s been weighing heavily on me also. We want students to work collectively, yet if the contributions are not equal, what’s the best way to weigh that?

      So many factors that seem to come into play. Do we create too much of a competitive environment in secondary grades?

  7. I’m not so sure students don’t want to collaborate – just not necessarily with a group of random students in a random class.

    Most students find a clique to “join” in school. If you watch Glee you know that the nerds, the jocks, the cheerleaders, and the glee club members don’t easily mix. Ask the captain of the football team to work collaboratively on an English assignment with the nerdiest kid in the A/V club? You’re going to see some interesting dynamics for sure. Am I saying I agree with the Glee portrayal of school? No. But there is some truth to there being different types of people who just don’t often blend well. And to go a step farther, I was very shy and had little self esteem, choosing not to blend at all.

    Watch the groups of kids eating lunch together. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you could give each lunch table an assignment. I’m betting we’d see all sorts of collaboration and a lunchroom full of kids having fun.

    • Ryan,
      Thanks very much for taking the time to share your thoughts. I don’t disagree with you one bit that there is not shortage of cliques in school. We all know them well.

      I like your idea of lunchroom collaboration. What if we did have collaborative groups continue their work into non-traditional locations (i.e., the lunchroom) during the school day?

      Students also need to realize that cliques don’t make it in the real-world. I think we’ve all come to the realization at one time or another that we don’t always get 1st pick of who we collaborate with.

  8. As with most issues, we teach it out of them. Another factor is motivation for the learning. If they want to learn it, they will do it by themselves or together, but mostly together as we are a social animal. One problem with collaboration in HS is the students think it is socializing time.

    • Paul,

      Thanks for your time to comment on my post. Much appreciated. If students think it’s socializing time, how do we bring a little bit of their world into our classrooms more to help them actually want to collaborate?

  9. Kyle,
    First, thanks for the post. It is very interesting to think about. When I was in the classroom I can remember kids who absolutely didn’t want to work with anyone. They had no desire. I believe, however, it has more to do with their learning style than their lack of wanting to work with others because many of these kids had lots of friends and could be considered popular.

    I wonder, though, if we just think of collaboration differently from kids. When I read your post I instantly though of gaming. Kids will still for hours on their Xbox or online and work in teams to save the human race from an alien invasion or to win the World Series. Many of those they work (collaborate) with are people they might never meet.

    I think it boils down to what many other have said. In some places we do teach them out of it. Educators force kids into groups so they can control behavior or work output. I look at your kindergarten example. I bet those kids get to work with (play with) whomever. There is no forced grouping. The kids naturally divide themselves. The same should be true in the upper grades. Kids are going to converse, they are going to get off task. But so what. I always found that if my kids grouped themselves the work was better, they learned more and they wanted to be in class. So maybe if we keep that kindergarten attitude and let kids be kids and discover how they want to discover we might help foster that love of collaboration for longer than the kindergarten years.

  10. Steven and Ryan – i’m so with you on self-selection of grouping. i think we talk more about – why did you sit together after recess…why are you a natural community, what passions/aspirations do you share and now what good can your community do.
    i once heard someone, i’m thinking it was danah boyd, talk about how we do groups in school -comparing it to if you told your son/daughter every 2 weeks – i’m going to delete all your friends in fb and have you start over.
    i think Dan Meyer’s words of being patient with irresolution is fitting here for us. we often think the messiness of collaboration isn’t for school. not proper enough, especially in the beginning stages. it takes a while for initial stories to be told, believes in and understanding of what the project at hand is.. etc.
    we are so product/content driven… it’s easy to miss the things that matter. Dave Cormier’s community as curriculum couldn’t be more spot-on. it’s not just that we should get better at collaboration… that’s where it’s at.
    great post.. great comments… thanks guys.

  11. i think it’s key too, that Sugata Mitra’s success with kids happens after he’s been gone for 3 months at a time.. what’s that about?…

  12. Interesting question!

    I agree with the others that (innate?) tendencies toward introversion or extraversion and kids’ preferences about who to work with probably play a role. But I’m thinking that the larger culture may also have a part in it.

    U.S. society places a high value on individualism and this is generally how grading is done. (Does group work confuse the issue? Is there a standard way to grade group projects? How do students know what to do to earn their individual grades?)

    In some cultures, it’s impolite to look someone in the eye when they are speaking to you. In some, the norm is to memorize what the book or the teacher says and regurgitate it on tests rather than having your own opinion. Students from cultures where introversion, collectivism, and consensus are virtues may be less comfortable being called upon in front of the class, and more comfortable working in groups or online. The fact that these things can be cultural suggests that they are learned.

    What role does self-esteem play across the spectrum of collectivist to individualistic cultures?

    You may want to ping ESL teachers to see whether they have more info on this aspect.

  13. I’m all for organic learning and for people to work with their tribe (see The Element by Ken Robinson). However, we also need to prepare students for their future.

    Since I’m returning to education after 20 years in high tech, I can vouch for the fact that in the real world, you often need to work with a variety of people, and who you work with may not be your choice. They may be from your tribe or they more often have complementary skills.

    In addition, in the real world, the reason for the collaboration is not only for learning and idealism, it’s often to convince a client that your company offers the best solution.

  14. I agree with Kelly and others. We spend SO much time asking kids to do “their own work” and even competing against each other for grades, scores, etc. that we do teach it out of them.

    In music at my school, we often talk about teamwork and collaboration and how important that is in music class, physical education class, etc.. Not surprisingly, my best collaborators are Kdg, 1st, and sometimes 2nd grade. When we look at the models of the Kdg and 1st grade classrooms, there’s still a lot of group learning taking place. In 2nd and the other upper elem grades, there’s more individual desk time.

    I also think it has a lot to do with the concerted efforts of many parents to push their kids into outside activities so early in their children’s lives. I’ve heard a parent (not from my school) say, “If I don’t get her into soccer now (at age 5), she’ll never be able to compete for a high school position. How will she get a scholarship in soccer then?” (Again, the child is FIVE!)- competition is emphasized in our society over collaboration. The club sports and private dance/music instruction in my area are cut-throat, even at the elementary levels. Sad. I liked it better when the kids just ran around and played in the dirt during their soccer games. 🙂

    Great post, Kyle!

  15. I had a couple of thoughts on this. The first is that collaborative learning projects take time and with the curriculum loaded up and more standardized tests being sold to schools (talk about a money machine!) where is the time? Maybe cut all physical exercise, music and art. Also there is an age when teenagers get kind of goofy about working with the opposite sex especially so social awkwardness could be part of it. And the new technologies are impressive, but they encourage people to be in synch with themselves in fact. Do people sit around and listen to the newest albums and talk anymore or do they just update their pod and go into a cocoon of sound? As others have said here, the ME is far more important than the WE and the personal technology only reinforces this. We are connected but not engaged somehow. Collaboration takes engagement.

  16. IDK, Tim, I think technology lets people find and work with people having similar learning styles and interests (hope you’re joking about cutting that stuff). And people are less shy when online, non?

    I am concerned about the amount of time it takes to grade projects, and how to grade them. Anyone have a good system?

  17. You probably already see this TED talk that says a lot about student learning when there is collaboration. Fascinating.

  18. Yes, I love that TED talk. That one and others make me think how much we should let students explore rather than pushing information toward them. How can we just give them a nugget and maybe some materials or guidelines and let them go with it? And then how do we evaluate their work?

  19. Came back to this post having watch this excellent TED recently:

    The talk is generating a lot of buzz about introversion and the need to respect that some people are simply better wired to work at their own pace and more contemplatively on their own in certain situations. Yes collaboration is an essential social skill we all need to develop, but the flip is respecting that a collaborative environment is not always the best environment for working on every type of work.

    It’s an interesting counterpoint to some of the ideas above, thought you might appreciate seeing it. Thanks for sharing your insights on such an invigorating topic.

    • Hi Luke,

      Could you repost the TED video link please? I’d love to check it out. Looks like the existing link is just back to this post. I would agree with you, there are times when I probably would prefer to think something through and plan on my own, however, it just never seems to turn out as good when I have a team to help me think through all angles.


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